Roscommon/South Leitrim: Party politics all but expelled from the centre of Ireland

If the two by elections in the south on Friday were a experiment, what would have been the hypotheses and what might we safely conclude from it? Well, let’s look first at the one in Roscommon South Leitrim.

In neither case is the news good for political parties. First there’s a near thirty per cent drop in turnout from the last general election. And look at all those votes heaped up on the side of independents in Roscommon South Leitrim which the Dublin media (and Paddy Power) predicted would fall to Fianna Fail.

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It didn’t, in part because like Manchester City in the days when it had fallen into the third division of English soccer, Fianna Fail was the team everyone else wanted a bit of. Under these lights, Connaughton did relatively well to top the poll.

In the last general election the same candidate pulled in less than 15%, but in the local elections in May they got 33% in a constituency that’s yet to return more than one FF TD. At 22% that’s a massive underhit at Dail level.

It might be too much to suggest, but it looks like the people who defected from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael are now piling in under the independent banner. It’s significant too that the further you go up the democratic ladder the greater the discount imposed.

The lifeblood of all politics is local and nowhere is it more local than in Roscommon. You only have to drive there from Cavan to understand why. There’s little in the way of public sector jobs, and the road system is appalling.

The hospital has been a source of ongoing community anxiety for twenty some years, for the few jobs it puts in the economy, and the mortal fear of facing the dreadfully slow road to Galway hospital.

When the Minister of Health broke election promises over keeping the local A&E open, the local FG TD Denis Naughton had no choice but to jump ship taking a whole swathe of local votes out of the FG pot.

Notionally, Ming pulls in from all around him. But don’t let the beard and dope smoking fool you. His vote is amply represented by the agricultural contractor Michael FitzMaurice who turned up late at the polls saying cattle had to be shifted.

He is the kind of small farmer that used to be (and still is in some parts) the backbone of the Fianna Fail party.  And Ming is not letting go of that segment without an almighty (preferably bloody) fight.

Much of this is structural problem. And one set in train back in 1977 when the then Fianna Fail government under Jack Lynch abolished the local rate and therefore the democratic bond with county based politicians.

Once the butt of Dublin insider jokes, it’s the mavericks from the Healey Raes, Lowrys, McGraths and Flanagans who are trusted to look after the county’s interest against what they see as the machinations of an arrogant Dublin government machine.

In other words, the bridge between the parish and the county, and the county and the national legislature is broken. As Peter Geoghegan and I noted on our RTE Road Trip in 2011:

The primacy of the county boundary in Ireland’s electoral system was a recurring theme. TDs are expected to fight their county’s corner in Dublin, to bring benefits back home for local voters even at the expense of the wider national interest.

Leitrim, for example, was sliced in two after 1997 and now has no TDs in the 31st Dail – a fact predicted, and greatly resented, by the populous of that county. Even in prosperous Kilkenny there were complaints about public jobs going to Carlow, and dismay that the new road was simply enabling communities further to the south.

So even if the collective decision to go increasingly independent proves to be short term and unprofitable, as a channel for disaffection it is pretty effective.

The core problem that needs addressing is not simply can one party or another recover, but can Irish democracy be fixed? Or as Roscommon blogger Hugh Lynn puts it..

The parties are taking a hiding and Fianna Fáil are now probably going to go for Micheal Martin’s head as he’s the leader! Big mistake lads! You’re calling it wrong! Your problem is closer to home!

The party people on the ground, the local organisation could be your downfall. The people you choose locally may be the issue. That’s not pointed at Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael it’s a global sweeping statement! Can you be trusted??

The end in politics, as in history, is never quite the end. Right now, the question rural Ireland is asking is: can any party be trusted? And if so, for what? Thus far there is no coherent answer to that question.

As a footnote, it should be noted that contrary to a lot of reporting in the MSM Sinn Fein did rather well here.

Martin Kenny’s vote has been a bellwether for the party’s national showing over the last two elections. Moreover, his vote is centred in Leitrim which transfers to a new Sligo Leitrim constituency where the party will already have one sitting TD.

That may give them reasons to run a second candidate there, and start to put down proper foundations in Fianna Fail’s back garden. Marvellous what you can do when you have no worries about internal leadership challenges.


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty